The Land Beyond the Rim:
Sigurd Olson's Wilderness Theology

by David Backes

Introduction | Early Years | "Flashes of Insight" | Evolutionary Humanism and the Emergent God
A Wilderness Theology | Racial Memory

In September of 1938, American Forests magazine published its first feature article in twelve years that explored the concept of wilderness preservation. Its earlier article, a response to Aldo Leopold's classic "The Last Stand of the Wilderness," had been decidedly negative.1 But not this time. The 1938 article began with these words:

In some men, the need of unbroken country, primitive conditions and intimate contact with the earth is a deeply rooted cancer gnawing forever at the illusion of contentment with things as they are. For months or years this hidden longing may go unnoticed and then, without warning, flare forth in an all consuming passion that will not bear denial. Perhaps it is the passing of a flock of wild geese in the spring, perhaps the sound of running water, or the smell of thawing earth that brings the transformation. Whatever it is, the need is more than can be borne with fortitude, and for the good of their families and friends, and their own particular restless souls, they head toward the last frontiers and escape.2

The article, called "Why Wilderness?" was written by a thirty-nine-year-old junior college dean and canoe trip outfitter named Sigurd Olson . This was not his first article promoting the wilderness idea, but it was his first to appear in a national conservation magazine, and it was among the articles helping to shape debate about the meaning of wilderness. Bob Marshall, founder and financial angel of the Wilderness Society, wrote to Olson full of excitement about it. "I really think it's as good an article on the wilderness as I have ever read," he wrote. "It certainly explains better than anything I know what the wilderness does to people psychologically." Marshall added, "One thing that distinguishes it especially is its beautiful writing." (Marshall and Olson are shown at left during their sole canoe trip together in 1937.)3

Bob Marshall had identified Olson's strongest gift: the ability to describe the effects of wilderness on the human psyche in an unpretentious yet lyrical style that commanded people's attention and held their interest. In 1938 Olson was still struggling to develop an effective writing style, sometimes succeeding and often failing, but eventually he became known as "the poetic voice of the modern wilderness movement."4 Recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for his nature writing, as well as the highest honors of the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the Izaak Walton League of America and the National Wildlife Federation, Sigurd Olson was one of the most influential wilderness promoters of the twentieth century.

According to philosopher Max Oelschlaeger, "One mark of intuitive geniuses is that, in climbing to the top of the mountain, they can share that vantage point with ordinary men and women."5 This article will attempt to follow Olson's trail up that metaphorical mountain. It will explore the childhood experiences that led him to seek the mountain, the wilderness experiences that brought him to the top, and the works he read that added intellectual support to his conclusions about the spiritual values of wilderness.

Introduction | Early Years | "Flashes of Insight" | Evolutionary Humanism and the Emergent God
A Wilderness Theology | Racial Memory

Early Years

Olson was born in Chicago on April 4, 1899 (three months before the birth of Ernest Hemingway just a few miles away). He was the second of three sons. At the age of seven he moved with his family to Wisconsin; he lived for three years on the Door County peninsula, three years in the north central logging town of Prentice, and spent his teen years in Ashland, on the shore of Lake Superior.

He moved so much because his father was a Swedish Baptist minister. Swedish Baptists were much like northern Baptists, except they conducted services in Swedish and continued other Old World customs, most notably a highly festive celebration of Christmas. They often opposed alcohol more stridently than other Baptists, because widespread alcoholism had plagued Sweden during the nineteenth century, when waves of emigrants left for the United States.

Lawrence Olson -- who referred to himself as L.J. -- was among those immigrants. He came from the mountainous province of Dalarne, where Baptists had been persecuted in large numbers by the Swedish government, which enforced the Lutheran faith.6 He was something of a liberal among Swedish Baptists in one regard: he began the divisive task of introducing English language services in his Wisconsin congregations, which marked the beginning of the end of the label Swedish Baptist. But theologically he was a fundamentalist who led anti-alcohol campaigns and told his three sons to turn their heads whenever they passed a Catholic Church. Sigurd once recalled how L.J. "could hold his audience of farmers and fisherfolk by telling them sonorously that if they didn't obey the 10 Commandments and love each other they would surely be flung into the depths of hell and spend the rest of their days in horrible torment."7

Sigurd's father also was a stern, grim man, very reserved and formal, always concerned about doing the right thing. He did not have much sympathy for amusements of any kind. One time, for example, Sigurd and his older brother, Kenneth, saved up their money to buy a chess set; when their father discovered them playing with it he grabbed it away from them and tossed it into the fire.8 After Sigurd was grown and married, he would recall for his wife how his whole family seemed to breath a collective sigh of relief when L.J. was called away to visit other congregations; everyone finally could drop the formality and be themselves.

The Olson family's move from Chicago to Sister Bay, Wis. in 1906 came at a perfect time for Sigurd, because he was just reaching an age where he had the desire and freedom to explore beyond the immediate neighborhood. His family's two-story, rectangular frame home, half a mile east of town, was surrounded by farmfields, woods and swampland. The dirt road passing in front of the house and the church next door cut straight across the peninsula to Appleport, three miles to the east. Sigurd got to know both sides of the peninsula: the deep harbor of Sister Bay, protected from west winds by wooded bluffs, the Sister Islands protruding thinly on the horizon; and the shallow waters and windswept shore of wide-open Appleport, where constant pounding of waves left a beach composed of smooth stones, clumps of grasses and hardy wildflowers. Just south of Sister Bay was Ephraim, where the harbor view centered on spectacular limestone cliffs that were bathed in a luminous gold by the early morning sun. Sigurd often visited Ephraim after his father began holding regular services in a log building there in 1907, and he occasionally accompanied L.J. on ministerial rounds to Bailey's Harbor, Gills Rock and Washington Island. On the way to Washington Island, the road they traveled with their horse and buggy took them steadily uphill to a high view of Ellison Bay and the broad expanses of Lake Michigan.

Simple pleasures abounded. He learned to fish, and built a small fort of branches in his yard. Each week he joined friends downtown to watch the stagecoach come in; its driver, knowing the children were watching (and waiting for the candy he handed out), always galloped the horses down the steep hill to the Sister Bay Post Office and Tavern. Fishermen brought the Olsons cold, shining catches in exchange for L.J.'s services, and orchard owners brought bushels of fruit. Sigurd would never forget the sweet autumn scent of apples in the cellar.9

At night, lying in his bed, he could hear the moaning of fog horns, a sound that called to him as enticingly as would the howl of wolves or the wail of loons later in life. Eventually he got the chance to follow that call, exploring nearby wooded paths by himself in an ever-larger radius from home until one day he made it all the way to the lake. Half a century later, he described what he experienced at the end of an abandoned stone pier:

A school of perch darted in and out of the rocks. They were green and gold and black, and I was fascinated by their beauty. Seagulls wheeled and cried above me. Waves crashed against the pier. I was alone in a wild and lovely place, part of the dark forest through which I had come, and of all the wild sounds and colors and feelings of the place I had found. That day I entered into a life of indescribable beauty and delight. There I believe I heard the singing wilderness for the first time.10

Sigurd's childhood explorations of the woods, fields and shorelines of Door County, and his later excursions at Prentice and Ashland, were partly an expression of his innate passion for natural beauty. However, they also served as an escape from the stifling atmosphere of school and home, and as an outlet to find and express his true self. Decades later, in a draft of his memoirs, he would write:

As I grew older, this need became a passion that could not be denied. Unless each day meant some contact with the out of doors, I was unhappy. As long as I could remember it had always been this way, needing to feel the wind and the rain on my face with open sky and vistas around me. I did not know at the time but this growing need was molding me in a way I did not fully understand. All I was aware of was the constant over-riding need and that when I was indoors it could never be too long or something would die within me.11

In many ways, Sigurd's background is reminiscent of two other well-known naturalists, John Burroughs and John Muir. Like Olson, Burroughs and Muir had intensely religious fathers whose God resembled the angry and vengeful Lord of Jonathan Edwards. Chauncy Burroughs was, like L.J. Olson, both a grim man and a fundamentalist Baptist; when John defied his edict against Santa Claus and hung a stocking one Christmas Eve, Chauncy filled it with horse manure. And Daniel Muir, who became a preaching elder in the Disciples of Christ, was physically abusive, beating John whenever he failed to memorize the day's Bible verses.12

The "two Johns" turned away from the faith of their fathers. For John Burroughs, it was gut-wrenching. His break came at the age of 19, when he attended a revival meeting and, seeking God, allowed himself to be immersed in the Delaware River. He came out shouting hallelujahs in order to fit in with the other believers, but that night he wrote in his journal that despite his fervent desire, he had felt nothing. The rest of his life was full of what biographer Edward Renehan, Jr. calls a "consuming" nostalgia. He longed for the simple life of his childhood on the family farm, and he "mourned his personal loss of the simple, straight-forward, Testament-based faith by which his parents and grandparents had gladly governed their lives."13

For John Muir there was no defining moment, no hard break from his fundamentalist background. Instead, without any evident inner torture, he gradually discarded the dogmas enforced by his father's beatings. For years scholars have considered him to be essentially a pantheist, but more recent students have set him within the boundaries of liberal Christianity. Similar arguments are likely in store for those who study Sigurd Olson, because, like Muir, he wrote vaguely about his beliefs and, as with Muir, Olson's religious beliefs are central to his vision about the role of wilderness in the modern world.14

Olson experienced a religious crisis at the end of 1918, while he was attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He was 19 years old, and had just moved into the university's YMCA at 740 Langdon St. This was a prime recruiting location for student religious groups, and Olson soon discovered and joined the Student Volunteers, American Protestantism's most important missionary organization. Formed in the late 1880s, the Student Volunteer Movement had vowed to evangelize the entire world within a generation. The Madison chapter's meetings sometimes featured missionaries who had just returned from the wilds of India, Africa and the Amazon; their stories so excited Olson that he seriously began to consider becoming a missionary himself, and he became so enthusiastically active a member of the Student Volunteers that the chapter soon elected him to serve as its president. But at the very moment when it seemed as though he had found himself and his goal in life, he was assailed by doubts.15

The details are sketchy, but eleven years later, when he began keeping a journal, he recalled this period and wrote that "when new ideas of religion became mine" his faith and hope were "shattered."16 What these ideas were, and from where they came, he didn't say. They don't seem to have come from his classes -- he was taking an animal husbandry course called "Beef and Dairy Cattle," a course in modern European political history, a physics course called "Mechanics and Heat, Electricity and Magnetism," a basic soils science course about soil physics and fertility, and public speaking.17 In such courses there would not have been any discussion of the theory of evolution to clash with his Baptist background, no modern psychological debates about the existence of the human soul or free will, no anthropological treatises on the cultural creation of God. Of course, just by attending the University of Wisconsin Sigurd may have come into contact with these ideas, even if they weren't part of his classes. But it's impossible to be sure.

Perhaps when he wrote about "new ideas of religion" he simply meant he was exposed to versions of Christianity that made him question his fundamentalist upbringing. Certainly the YMCA and the Student Volunteers were not only for Baptists. But his journal recollection makes the problem seem much deeper than that. He wrote that he would climb to the roof of the YMCA and look down upon Lake Mendota and the city lights or up at the stars, and "pray and battle with my God." He continued:

Never will I forget the heights to which my exaltation brought me or the depths of despair that were mine. Upon descending from the pinnacle for a time my fancy carried me along the heights but not for long. Soon I was again in the commonplace and then came a sense of failure and futility. I wanted to know God. I wanted to see him. I could feel his presence but did not know.18

As his doubts increased, Sigurd began to think that his excitement about the missionary life had more to do with his love of wild places than with a desire to save souls. The issue came to a head the night before he was to publicly declare his intent to become a missionary. Once again he climbed to the top of the YMCA to fight his inner battle. The pressure must have been tremendous: to change his mind now not only would upset his friends and advisors in the Student Volunteers, but would make him L.J. Olson's second son to reject the ministry. His older brother, Kenneth, had decided he would go into journalism, despite L.J.'s strongly stated desire that he become a minister. [Late in life, Kenneth would write to Sigurd, "Dad and I never got along."19] And Sigurd knew -- although he could not have told this to his father -- that at stake this time was not just a career choice, but a whole way of looking at the world.

Before the night was over, Sigurd made his decision. The next morning he quit the Student Volunteers. As he recalled in his journal eleven years later, "At last in despair I gave up my dream as a missionary and life's castles crashed around me. Doomed as it seemed to a commonplace existence I gave myself halfheartedly to my work and hung doggedly on....I had not yet developed the philosophy that would have made it possible to override my despair."20

For years afterward, Olson was obsessed with what he called his search for meaning. To lose belief in the dogma of his father's church was one thing, but to lose faith in the idea of a mission in life, of an individual calling to some noble purpose -- this cut deeply into the psyche of the Rev. L.J. Olson's second son. "For years I went on getting more bitter and disillusioned all of the time," he recalled in his journal on Jan. 14, 1930. His only hope for happiness was to recover a sense of mission. Before that could happen, however, he needed to regain his faith in a greater power.

Introduction | Early Years | "Flashes of Insight" | Evolutionary Humanism and the Emergent God
A Wilderness Theology | Racial Memory

"Flashes of Insight"

His experiences outdoors provided the seeds of this new faith. The defining moment came on a canoe trip into the western portion of Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park sometime during the early 1920s. Olson by then was married, had one child, and lived in the northern Minnesota city of Ely, at the edge of what is now called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a wilderness adjacent to the Quetico. He taught biology at the local high school, and eventually would teach at, and become dean of, the junior college. During the summers, he made some extra money and satisfied his craving for the outdoors by working as a guide for a local outfitting company. One summer evening in the early 1920s, camped on an island in Robinson Lake, Olson got into his canoe after dinner and paddled to the nearby eastern shore of the lake, where there was a peak with a gorgeous view of the wilderness to the west. Sigurd climbed to the top in time to watch the sunset, but the experience proved more than an aesthetic appreciation of a glowing red sky. He recalled it in his journal in 1930:

The sun, a round red ball on the horizon, [was] separated from me by leagues and leagues of primitive wilderness. It hung suspended, swelling, glowing, palpitating with energy. For a brief moment I experienced the sensation of feeling the earth move away from the sun. Nothing akin to it had I ever felt. Here I was, an atom of life on the rim of the world, watching it turn. Never before had I experienced anything which placed me so in harmony with the infinite."21

Olson felt peace and contentment, and a sense of "union of myself with the plan of creation."22 And he began seeking these epiphanies, or "flashes of insight" as he came to call them, whenever he could find time alone outdoors. During canoe trips, after his clients had turned in for the night, Sigurd often would take the canoe out by himself, searching for another glimpse of the infinite. "Most of all would I find what I sought on brilliant starlit nights," he recalled in his journal on Jan. 20, 1930:

I would paddle out swiftly onto the open lake if the moon was shining down its path. It never failed to come to me when going down that brilliant shining highway into space. Most completely of all would I be taken when lying on my back looking at the stars. The gentle motion of the canoe softly swaying, the sense of space and infinity given by the stars, gave me the sense of being suspended in the ether. My body had no weight, my soul was detached and I careened freely through a delightfullness of infinite distance.... Sometimes the night cry of the loon would enhance the illusion. For long periods I would lie, having lost track of time and location. A slap of a wavelet would jerk me back into the present and I would paddle back to the glowing coals of the deserted camp fire, trying to fathom the depths of the experience I had been through.

Olson's clients often were amused by his behavior, and teased him about his "poetic leanings" (just as they teased him for bringing a pillow). He took it good-naturedly and laughed along with them, but he thought that at least a few of his customers seemed to understand. He also began to notice how they, too, often were transformed during the course of a canoe trip. Gradually, during the first few days of paddling and portaging, they would drop the formalities and hard shell of their business personas and expose their true selves. They laughed more and played practical jokes. They sang. They watched the sun set and the moon rise, and listened to the roar of rapids and the soft sighs of wind in the pines. Olson was amazed one day to see a wealthy, work-o-holic executive spend more than an hour watching an ant hill.

These observations and personal epiphanies convinced Olson that nature in general, and wilderness in particular, could play a crucial spiritual role for modern civilization. The sense of oneness with creation that he had felt at Robinson Peak and many times afterward was similar to the Christian experience of being saved. And if sin consists not merely of individual moral transgressions, but in an underlying separation from God or Nature, then at- one-ment with the earth is an atonement, a reconcilation that makes healing possible. "Days when I have seen my vision," Olson wrote, "are glorious beads on the chain of my life; the others are drab unbrightened stones."23 And gradually he came to believe that his life's mission was to spread the good news of wilderness salvation.

This meant, in large measure, counteracting the modern tendency to dismiss as fantasy any claims to truth that weren't based on rational, scientific analysis. In an unpublished essay he wrote during the 1930s, he said, "Our enemies have debunked and analysed and have tried to strip our souls of the last thread of connection with the infinite." He wrote that those who do not "permit themselves to submit" can never understand the spiritual feelings that bring inner peace, and he added: "It is as difficult for them to understand as for a man who has never seen the wilderness, to know the joys of exploration and discovery. For them, never having probed the depths of their own sensibilities, there is no wilderness, nothing new, for they have never glimpsed the land beyond the rim."24

Olson saw himself as being in "the forefront of the battle to retain a few last entrenchments of the spirit."25 Science and technology were destroying the religous truths that had given mankind spiritual sustenance, the truths that had given meaning, and offering nothing in their place. Olson was driven, he wrote, to help "keep the faith alive, give people something to hold to, something to fight for that is bigger than politics, bigger than the problems the world is constantly facing, something in the way of a philosophical concept that lies at the root of any happiness the race can find."26

Introduction | Early Years | "Flashes of Insight" | Evolutionary Humanism and the Emergent God
A Wilderness Theology | Racial Memory

Evolutionary Humanism and the Emergent God

Olson did not completely reject Christianity. He and his wife joined the Presbyterian Church after they moved to Ely, Minn., and attended with some regularity throughout their lives.27 For a time Olson sang in the church choir. He vacillated in his faith, however: in 1933, for example, after reading the philosopher Benedict Spinoza, Olson wrote in agreement that "Our salvation now is [in] calm thought and contemplation rather than [in religious] authority." Yet he seems to have at least briefly considered returning to an evangelical Christianity three years later, for a letter from his mother says that "Dad was overjoyed to hear that you have surrendered your life to Christ."28

If Olson really was reconsidering his evangelical roots, his constant reading of John Burroughs throughout the 1930s must have been one of the factors that prevented it. Burroughs ridiculed what he called "theological pap," and praised scientific reason: "The atmosphere of our time is fast being cleared of the fumes and deadly gases that arose during the carboniferous age of theology."29 He argued that there is no evident purpose or design manifest in nature, only the laws of matter, force, and biology. To Burroughs, evolution's most important result was mankind's development of moral consciousness.

To a large extent, Olson came to agree with Burroughs, but Burroughs' universe was too cold for Olson: "He does not say anything about the fact that God may be good, that God is love, God is kindness and humility, tolerance, and seated primarily within the human spirit. That is where he failed."30

Olson exposed himself to a number of different religious faiths, through his clients whom he guided in the wilderness, through friends in the conservation movement, and through reading. Although he maintained ties to Christianity, he came to see all faiths as equivalent. In 1943, for example, he wrote to his sons about Buddhism: "There are so many things in Buddha that resemble Christianity, the working philosophy is the same -- the main idea being to align oneself with the great spiritual forces of the universe, to be in tune with the universe and God, that only by being cognizant of spiritual forces and in agreement with the best thought and idealism of the ages can a man ever achieve serenity and tolerance and peace, to practice humility and understanding."31

This was essentially the argument in a book he read two years later, The Perennial Philosophy, by Aldous Huxley. Huxley tried to show how the great thinkers and mystics of all of the world's major faiths agreed on certain principles, and he argued that religions tended to develop problems when they focused solely on one aspect of God: as personal and transcendant, for example, while downplaying or ignoring his immanent and supra-personal nature. The real God is all of these, he said, quoting from such disparate sources as St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Lao Tzu and Shankara.

Early in the book, Huxley, writing about the nature of God, quotes Eckhart, who said that God "becomes and disbecomes." To Huxley, this meant that God exists in time: "He might be an emergent God, starting unspiritually at Alpha and becoming gradually more divine as the aeons rolled on towards some hypothetical Omega."32 Huxley's speculation made intuitive sense to Olson, and he ultimately tied the idea of an emergent God into his wilderness philosophy, even using it as a chapter title in the 1976 book that summed up his philosophy, Reflections From the North Country.33

Aldous Huxley wasn't the only influence, however, or even the most important. Similar thoughts were expressed by Julian Huxley, Pierre Lecomte du Nouy, Lewis Mumford, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in books that Olson read between 1947 and 1960. Lecomte du Nouy wrote the first of these, Human Destiny, a book that fascinated Sigurd Olson. A pioneering French biophysicist and skeptic of religion who had converted to Roman Catholicism, Lecomte du Nouy wrote that "evolution continues in our time, no longer on the physiological or anatomical plane but on the spiritual and moral plane."34

Human Destiny was the first book of what Julian Huxley came to label "evolutionary humanism." The central belief of evolutionary humanists is that the development of the human species started a whole new phase of evolution. As Huxley put it in his 1957 book Religion Without Revelation, which Olson read with care and appreciation, "the present is the first period in the long history of the earth in which the evolutionary process, through the instrumentality of man, has taken the first step towards self-consciousness. In becoming aware of his own destiny, man has become aware of that of the entire evolutionary process on this planet: the two are interlocked."35

Lewis Mumford took a similar perspective in his 1951 book, The Conduct of Life, but tied this "evolutionary awareness" that Huxley would speak of to the idea of an emergent God: "The universe does not issue out of God, in conformity with his fiat: it is rather God who in the long processes of time emerges from the universe, as the far-off event of creation and the ultimate realization of the person toward which creation seems to move."36 When Olson quoted Lewis Mumford in his writings and speeches, this book invariably was the source.

But Olson was especially interested in the mystical theory of evolution described by a French paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in a book published in English in 1959 under the title The Phenomenon of Man.37 A central concept in the book is that of "convergence," which Teilhard describes as mankind's tendency throughout evolution to prevent differentiation among races from leading to the kind of biological separation seen among species of birds, for example, or insects. Another evolutionary process, "complexification," has led to increasingly complex patterns of organization; for example, from subatomic units to atoms to inorganic molecules to organic molecules, then to subcellular life, then to cells, and so on.

Teilhard wrote not just about evolution in the biosphere or the inorganic lithosphere; he coined the term "noosphere" to refer to the sphere of mind, a "thinking layer" superimposed on the other spheres, consisting of the total thought patterns of humans, and the patterns of their activities. It is a microcosm of incorporated knowledge. To Teilhard, the large increase in human population and the rapid advances in human communications is producing a complexification of the noosphere, and at the same time a convergence in mental activity, a global psychosocial unification. The end result will be an intensely unified, "hyperpersonal" noosphere, what he called "point Omega" -- by implication, union with God.

Teilhard wrote that his goal was to show to a skeptical modern world a God who was "as vast and mysterious as the cosmos" and yet "as immediate and all-embracing as life."38 Sigurd Olson did not believe in all of the major tenets of Christianity -- in 1959, for example, he wrote to one of his fans that "physical immortality is a juvenile conception of frightened man."39 Yet his idea of God, while free from any specific doctrine or creed, was very much like that described by Teilhard.

Introduction | Early Years | "Flashes of Insight" | Evolutionary Humanism and the Emergent God
A Wilderness Theology | Racial Memory

A Wilderness Theology

Olson's wilderness epiphanies, or flashes of insight, provided the soil out of which his philosophy grew; they gave him a sense of purpose at a time when he did not know what to believe, and an intuitive grasp of the answers that he later found affirmed in the writings of such people as Lecomte du Nouy and Teilhard de Chardin. A genuine mystical experience is difficult to describe, because such words as "oneness" often convey a sense of ethereal distance from the physical world. But while such experiences are accompanied by a feeling of detachment -- meaning a broadened perspective in which current problems, questions and issues recede in importance -- they also are accompanied by a feeling of complete participation. In his best-selling book The Singing Wilderness, Olson described once again his experience at Robinson Lake, this time with the style of a writer who has found his voice:

The sun was trembling now on the edge of the ridge. It was alive, almost fluid and pulsating, and as I watched it sink I thought that I could feel the earth turning from it, actually feel its rotation. Over all was the silence of the wilderness, that sense of oneness which comes only when there are no distracting sights or sounds, when we listen with inward ears and see with inward eyes, when we feel and are aware with our entire beings rather than our senses. I thought as I sat there of the ancient admonition "Be still and know that I am God," and knew that without stillness there can be no knowing, without divorcement from outside influences man cannot know what spirit means.40

This was why he fought for wilderness, and this was his message in countless speeches across the United States and Canada, as well as in nine books and many magazine and newspaper articles: in wilderness people can find the silence and the solitude and the uncivilized surroundings that can connect them once again to their evolutionary heritage and, through an experience of the eternal mystery, can give them a sense of the sacrality of all creation. If, as Olson believed, evolution was proceeding toward an emergent God, and if, as he also believed, individual spiritual growth played an essential role in this evolutionary process, then a wilderness experience could even be considered a sacramental experience, of benefit not just to the individual but to all of creation. Olson's wilderness philosophy may well be considered a theology, because it was deeply connected with his beliefs about the nature of God.

It must be pointed out that Olson was not a systematic philosopher who built rigorous arguments out of empirical evidence; he wrote and spoke like an artist who uses watercolor, painting word pictures with a broad brush. Nor was he a scholar or a professional intellectual. He read very selectively, and his understanding of the great thinkers of modern civilization was as likely to come from the Saturday Evening Post or The Atlantic as it was from scholary books. Yet he was a profoundly philosophical person who lived for ideas and who was engaged in a lifelong search for meaning.

Olson wanted to bring his message of wilderness salvation to people who would never think of reading a book by a Lewis Mumford or a Teilhard de Chardin or even a Loren Eiseley.41 Because of this goal, and because he gave far more weight to intuitive experience itself than to building a coherent framework of logically consistent statements about the nature of such experience, he rarely was explicit about the details of his wilderness theology. His vagueness sometimes caused his readers to misinterpret him, and quite likely will lead to disagreements among scholars, as in the case of John Muir.

Some of Olson's readers, for example, wrote letters asking if he was a pantheist. Sometimes, in fact, they accused him of it. "I'm amazed at your lack of understanding -- forgive me -- of the Bible and God's true relation as Creator," wrote one reader in 1957.42 But he was no pantheist. "God is not in nature," he told his son Robert; "God is in the human spirit."43 This is a classic humanist affirmation, and Sigurd Olson did embrace the main concepts of a perspective that has been called evolutionary humanism. But was he really a humanist?

Max Oelschlaeger, in his book The Idea of Wilderness, says that "all humanists are at base modernists."44 He describes modernism, in turn, as "a complicated concatenation of ideological presuppositions, including ideas that progress is inevitable, that the power of science and technology is unlimited, that humankind represents the apex of creation, and that the natural and cultural worlds can be understood on the basis of a machine metaphor."45

A cursory reading of Olson's writings could lead one to conclude that he did accept one of these humanist notions at the heart of current environmental problems, the belief that mankind is the highest product of evolution. Olson, along with the evolutionary humanists, believed that the development of culture distinguished mankind from other animals. To Olson, the development of love, in particular, was most important. "Granted," he wrote, "that creatures other than man show love and feeling not only for their young but for each other, only in man has it progressed to where it is a major force in his development and culture." Or, to phrase it in another way: "Man has come from the same earth stuff as other creatures, but through the accident of evolutional development we are the fortunate ones."46

Love was the most important element in Olson's environmentalism. "There can be no real, lasting land ethic without love," he said.47 But Olson's idea of love went beyond the anthropocentrism common to both Christian and humanistic world views. While he often spoke of stewardship, a concept that is based in love yet implies human domination over the rest of nature, his essential philosophy went deeper: "What civilization needs today," he wrote, "is a culture of sensitivity and tolerance and an abiding love of all creatures including mankind."48

The heart of Sigurd Olson's environmental ethic and of his wilderness theology was what Loren Eiseley described as "the expression of love projected beyond the species boundary by a creature born of Darwinian struggle, in the silent war under the tangled bank."49 To Olson, this meant love of all of the individual manifestations of creation within the context of an awareness of the evolutionary process itself. Behind that process, moreover, was an absolute mystery that was impossible for science to analyze, but that he had felt many times in the wilderness.

Olson called for a "new humanism,"50 but his wilderness theology might better be described as postmodernist, for it was based on the interconnectedness of all things and rejected the modernist dogma that the scientific method of rational analysis is the only legitimate means to truth. Olson was open to science, but believed that any real "knowing" could come about only by incorporating ideas and values from other paths of knowledge, such as aesthetics, religion, and intuition.

Oelschlaeger tentatively asks his readers to consider "the possibility of a postmodern hierophany." His description fits Olson's wilderness theology: "Such a revelation of deity is, for the postmodern mind, rooted in our awareness, however tenuous, of the reality of creative evolution on a cosmic scale, and therefore is also a revelation necessarily devoid of finalism -- be this personalistic or theistic." He adds that "the reality of creative evolution is fully consistent with the possibility of reawakening a primordial sense of the fundamental mystery and gratuitousness of human existence, some sense of the infinite and transcendent beyond merely human pupose and life."51

Introduction | Early Years | "Flashes of Insight" | Evolutionary Humanism and the Emergent God
A Wilderness Theology | Racial Memory

Racial Memory

One central element of Olson's wilderness theology has yet to be addressed: his belief that our instincts demand that we seek contact with wild nature. It was the earliest tenet of his wilderness creed. "We all have a pronounced streak of the primitive set deep in us," he wrote in 1928, "an instinctive longing that compels us to leave the confines of civilization and bury ourselves periodically in the most inaccessible spots we can penetrate."52 This statement, published in Field and Stream, was his first description of what he came to call "racial memory." It was a key idea in his article "Why Wilderness?" that American Forests published ten years later, and it drew Bob Marshall's attention. In his letter praising the article, Marshall asked Olson to explain what he meant in greater detail.53 Olson's response made it clear he believed this primitive attachment to nature had a biological origin:

I am confident that a way of life can become deeply implanted in the racial genetic set up....If temperatures, pressures, climatic and nutritional influences may in the long run affect the genes of a species, surely, there should be some background to the idea that a race might actually pass on a deeply rooted feeling for a certain way of life.

I do not believe for an instant that a father can pass on [genetically] a required skill...but I do believe that man as an animal race has ingrained in his chromosomes a need of freedom, physical struggle, primitive living, which a few thousand years of living in towns has not begun to root out. Our genetical research has been entirely along lines of the physical. Nothing has been done to speak of along lines of emotion and feeling for things. That is still wilderness as far as geneticists are concerned.54

When Olson first wrote about racial memory in 1928, he had not yet, according to all available evidence, read in any depth the writings of Emerson or Thoreau, of Muir or Burroughs or W.H. Hudson. The journal that he began keeping two years later, in January 1930, indicates that he had just started paying serious attention to these writers. So it's unlikely that he got the idea from any of them, even though all but Burroughs describe the same basic idea at one time or another.

Perhaps Sigurd got the idea from his school days, when he first came across the romantics and primitivists, writers such as Wordsworth and Coleridge and Whitman and Ibsen who reacted against the excessive rationality, industrialization, and urbanization of the world around them. It's also possible that he was influenced during his travels in the mid-1920s with fellow guide Jack Linklater. Part Cree Indian and part Scot, Linklater sometimes would stop suddenly on the trail or at a campsite and listen to what he claimed was the sound of Indian music or voices, despite the fact that he and Olson were far from other people. Olson was convinced that Linklater really heard something, and that the Indian's cultural closeness to nature was behind any explanation.55

No matter what the source, Olson gave far more emphasis to the idea of racial memory than any other leading wilderness movement thinker or nature writer; he mentioned it time and again in his speeches and writings. To Olson, the theory provided a biological basis for his justification of wilderness preservation on spiritual grounds. "Because man's subconscious is steeped in the primitive," he said, "looking to the wilderness actually means a coming home to him," and the impact of traveling into it is so strong that "reactions are automatically set in motion that bring in their train an uplift of the spirit." Wilderness visitors may experience "burning instants of truth when everything stands clear," or may realize life's purpose "after long periods of waiting." In other words, by returning to our biological roots in the wilderness, we can more easily open ourselves to spiritual experience and come to know our true selves.56

Bob Marshall, too much a rationalist despite his strong romantic streak, could not quite accept this fundamental piece of Olson's emerging wilderness doctrine. Eventually, however, Sigurd would find support in the writings of a prominent figure in the field of psychology, Carl Jung. As early as 1911, Jung had described a theory similar to Olson's "racial memory." He wrote, "Just as our bodies still retain vestiges of obsolete functions in many of our organs, so our minds, which have apparently outgrown these archaic impulses, still bear the mark of the evoloutionary stage we have traversed, and re-echo the dim bygone in dreams and fantasies." Jung argued that these impulses were manifested in a "collective unconscious," a common, inherited psyche that predisposes people to produce similar, archetypal ideas. He wrote that when people separate themselves from this instinctual nature, "they then experience the full impact of unconscious forces." To put it in Sigurd Olson's words, denying our instinctual need for close ties to nature "results inevitably in frayed nerves, loss of enthusiasm and appetite for present modes of existence." The key difference between Jung and Olson was that Jung believed we come into contact with the collective unconscious in our dreams, while Olson thought we could find it in the wilderness.57

Like Robert Marshall, Sigurd Olson emphasized the human benefits of wilderness. Marshall's biographer, James Glover, has said that Marshall's focus on aesthetics and human benefits of wilderness made him "not nearly as biocentric" as an Aldo Leopold or an Olaus Murie.58 Superficially, the same could be said of Olson. But there's an important difference between the perspectives of Olson and Marshall. Bob Marshall believed that wilderness was important to mental health in the modern world, but he was skeptical about Olson's idea of racial memory, and he was a humanist who did not believe in an emergent God. Olson's wilderness theology was, in essence, a sacramental vision of life and of evolution itself. If the whole of earth and the universe beyond is an extension of God, then humans are obliged to love all life, human and nonhuman, because all life is intertwined in the cosmic adventure. Olson's argument for wilderness preservation focused primarily on the human psychological and spiritual benefits, but he believed that these individual benefits would, in turn, lead to a more biocentric perspective. In wilderness we could rediscover the timeless, creative force of the universe, regain a sense of being part of that force, and, in so doing, glimpse "the land beyond the rim." With such an experience, it would be impossible to maintain a purely anthropocentric world view. To Olson, this was reason enough for preserving wilderness. "No longer can [wilderness] be saved from the standpoint of physical enjoyment but only as a stepping stone to cosmic understanding," he wrote in 1966. "In a world confused and strident, a world where all the old verities are being questioned, this is the final answer."59